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Who was IMHOTEP?
Physician, Architect... and over all Legend
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
I’m off, dear reader, I’m not at home. Likewise, I’m not very far away from my desk either. It’s hard to step away from your laptop, from a small business… but one must from time to time, even if only briefly. For sanity’s sake!
As such, my little family is currently enjoying a small ‘stay-cay’ in the city. While it’s only 15 minutes away from our apartment, in many ways, our small hotel room could be a world’s away… most importantly because it’s 96 F degrees outside and this place has a pool. (Liquid gold!)
So, I’ll be brief in my introduction and leave you with you a story of a man who lived over 4,700 years ago… a man who inspired the pyramids, physicians, and so so much more…
All the best,
Founder and Director
Who was IMHOTEP? The Ancient Man of Many Abilities
By Brendan Heard
“In priestly wisdom, in magic, in the formulation of wise proverbs; in medicine and architecture; this remarkable figure of Djoser’s reign left so notable a reputation that his name was never forgotten. He was the patron spirit of the later scribes, to whom they regularly poured out a libation from the water-jug of their writing outfit before beginning their work.” - Egyptologist James Henry Breasted
There are some who were so impressive in life that they become, rightfully, a legend. One such man was Imhotep (meaning the one who comes in peace), who lived at the end of the 27th century BC. He was a high vizier, chief physician, an architect to the Egyptian Pharaoh Djoser, as well as a high priest to the sun god Ra at Heliopolis.
Known as the, “prince, royal seal-bearer of the king of Lower Egypt, the high priest of Heliopolis, director of sculptors,” Imhotep was one of ancient Egypt’s most celebrated figures, famously glorified over the 3 millennia following his death... as well as deified.
To the Egyptian dynasties which flourished after his death, the veneration of Imhotep only increased over time. They even came to associate his name with that of a demigod, which was very unusual for someone who was not a pharaoh (or even a royal). Eventually he was spoken of as being both son of Ptah, and later as synonymous with the god Thoth himself.
It appears that libations to Imhotep were done regularly, illustrating his cult following, with the first text referencing him dating to the time of Amenhotep III (c. 1391–1353 BCE). Addressed to the owner of a tomb, it reads:
“The wab-priest may give offerings to your ka. The wab-priests may stretch to you their arms with libations on the soil, as it is done for Imhotep with the remains of the water bowl.” — Wildung (1977)
The astonishing thing, however, is that he achieved such fame and renown for so many different reasons. This tradition of his glorification celebrates him not only as the great architect (which he undoubtedly was) but as an author of wisdom, a chief of seers, and especially as a physician.
Indeed, the ancient Greeks equated him as the Egyptian counterpart to the Greek healing-god Aesclepius, representing in that sense the veneration of wisdom, learning, and innovation.
In art, Imhotep was portrayed as a priest with a shaven head, seated and holding a papyrus roll, although occasionally he was shown clothed like a priest. He was in that sense generally represented humbly, and never with divine insignias. Despite his great fame, the location of his tomb remains unknown, although it is suspected to be somewhere in Saqqara.
Nonetheless, Imhotep’s cult was a following of intellectualism, and the center of which was in Memphis, where he was often also thought of as a philosopher and a teacher of scribes. The temple in Memphis was dedicated to him (which the Greeks called the Asklepion) and surrounded by a famous school of magic, medicine, and a hospital. This temple became a place of pilgrimage for the sick and infertile as well as for the studious. Indeed, the famous Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have studied there and the Edwin Smith Papyrus (an astounding 1600 BC account of the treatment of 48 cases of wounds, fractures, dislocations, and tumors) has been theorized by some to be a copy from an old-kingdom source, possibly written by the great physician himself.
Regardless of this, there is little we can know directly about his healing abilities, and chiefly today Imhotep is rightly remembered as the great architect, for which he indisputably was.
Imhotep designed and constructed the step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara. Before this innovation, Pharaohs were buried in the far less impressive ‘mastaba tombs’. From the rectangular, flat mastaba, Imhotep conceived a square tomb base made with limestone with many levels above it. His structure required strengthening and feats of engineering because it was much more complex, balancing a tremendous weight in order to build for eternity.
He is also responsible for the first known use of stone columns to support a building. In Djoser’s monumental burial complex called “The Refreshment of the Gods”, the main temple contains this innovation of very large columns. Imhotep might be considered in this sense the ‘father to Vitruvius’ (the Roman architect and engineer during the 1st century BC known for his multi-volume work entitled De architectura) as well as the grandfather or patron saint to all classical architects.
Well into the Ptolemaic Greek and later Roman period he was remembered and celebrated as a legendary architect, scholar as well as inventor. The Egyptian priest and historian Manetho (writer of The History of Egypt) credited Imhotep with the invention of the method of fine stone-dressing, which was practiced by stonemasons ever since. Though he was certainly not the first to build with stone, he was the first to make a fine art of monumentalism and to develop the fineness technique in stone construction.
But how is it that despite these engineering achievements, we find that in Egypt two millennia after his death, he was still known chiefly as a god of medicine and healing, equated with the god Thoth, himself the chief god of architecture, mathematics, medicine, and scribes?
We will never know for sure, though perhaps this is in part because Imhotep was also associated with other fantastic feats, such as ending the seven-year famine that occurred during the reign of Djoser... by having a dream in which he spoke with the Nile god, who promised to end the drought. He was said to send to sleep to those who were suffering or in pain. Additionally, there is a papyri depicting Imhotep dueling an Assyrian sorceress in a battle of magic during a war between Egypt and Assyria.
It is clear that he was known as a physician to both men and the gods.
While there may be some legendary exaggeration to the full scope of his abilities, what is known from the historical record is no less impressive. They attest to the abilities of a master architect who designed structures that remain marvels and miracles to this day. A man whose work was so impressive that he himself became divine.
The great Imhotep.
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